Oct. 26 (UPI) — To protect forests and vulnerable ecosystems, erect healthcare clinics. That’s what nonprofit organizers did in Indonesia, where deforestation rates in neighboring Gunung Palung National Park declined dramatically during the first 10 years of the clinic’s operation.
The affordable healthcare clinic was set up in 2007 by a pair of nonprofits, Alam Sehat Lestari and Health In Harmony. Prior to the arrival of the clinic, the forests of Gunung Palung were shrinking annually as a result of uncontrolled illegal logging.
To curb the losses, the clinic offered discounted services to villages that enacted community-wide logging reductions and other conservation-minded reforms.
Researchers described the clinic’s environmental and public health successes in a new paper, published Monday in the journal PNAS.
“This innovative model has clear global health implications,” study co-author Michele Barry, senior associate dean of global health at Stanford University and director of the Center for Innovation in Global Health, said in a news release. “Health and climate can and should be addressed in unison, and done in coordination with and respect for local communities.”
In addition to offering community-wide discounts pegged to reductions in logging, the clinic also provided healthcare services for barter, allowing villagers to pay with tree seedlings, handicrafts and labor.
Health data collected by the clinic revealed a significant drop in infectious and non-communicable diseases between 2007 and 2017. Satellite data showed that deforestation rates in the forests surrounding the clinic and villages receiving service declined 70 percent compared to control plots far from the clinic.
“We didn’t know what to expect when we started evaluating the program’s health and conservation impacts, but were continually amazed that the data suggested such a strong link between improvements in health care access and tropical forest conservation,” said lead study author Isabel Jones, recent recipient of a doctoral degree in biology from Stanford.
Researchers found that the biggest reductions in logging occurred surrounding the villages that used the healthcare clinic the most.
More than a third of protected forests around the globe are either owned, managed, used or occupied by indigenous groups and local communities, but conservation planning and regulatory decision rarely involves input from these communities.
The opposite was true in West Kalimantan, Indonesia, where nonprofit leaders met regularly with local villages to come up with a strategy for protecting the environment while also meeting the region’s public health needs.
Researchers suggest the clinic’s success can serve as a model for conservation and public health initiatives all over the world.
“The data support two important conclusions: human health is integral to the conservation of nature and vice versa, and we need to listen to the guidance of rainforest communities who know best how to live in balance with their forests,” said Monica Nirmala, the executive director of the clinic from 2014 to 2018 and current board member of Health In Harmony.